Rembrandt as a doormat

Is speech or silence the true path to holiness?

By AVI SHAFRAN
April 5, 2006 21:51
4 minute read.

 
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A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder. "Midrash," although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing. One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7). The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that "God does not withhold reward from any creature," dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast. The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual "reward" for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls. It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature - and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base - should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects. And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder - along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed. The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us. Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud). "I have found nothing better for the body," Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), "than silence." The phrase "for the body" (which can also be rendered "the physical") seems jarring. Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying - that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted. But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech. Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being - the hope for creating holiness here on earth - lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words. That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by God into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a "speaking spirit." The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov). The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to "recognize the blessing of the rain." Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase "baruch Hashem," or "blessed is God" - and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane. So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness. UNLESS, THOUGH, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words. After all, aren't the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most? Most of us don't hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few - even few billionaires - would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish. Words - along with our ability to use them meaningfully - are the most valuable things any of us possesses. To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat. But someone who truly recognizes words' worth will use them only sparingly. The adage notwithstanding, talk isn't cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world. AND SO silence - choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say - is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech. Which brings us back to Pessah. As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam's, of the idea of hakarat hatov - literally, "recognition of the good" - with which we have been blessed. The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors' sojourn in Egypt as "the Speech-Exile," implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness. With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as "The Song" (Exodus, 15:1-18 ). Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to God for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt - who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt. Sinai. And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness God granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that "the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is." The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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